Alan Webber: Ernie, Anthony and me

May 7, 2019

The wife and I walked into a bar last Saturday night. That’s not the start of a joke, we really did. I happened to be wearing a Chicago Cubs shirt, which was noticed by the guy sitting at the next table. We struck up a conversation. Long story short, the next day the missus and I were sitting in great box seats, at face value, as the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted our Cubbies, which the Cubs won in 15 innings. What a blessed weekend we had.

A few years removed from watching one of the three biggest sports spectacles in my life — the Cubs winning the World Series — I still find myself watching the Cubs whenever I can. It’s a love affair going back to 1967. Someday, I will be buried still feeling the pain of the Cub’s collapse of 1969 .. .and an intense hatred for the Mets.

However, the losses of the past couple years, which there have been a few too many, don’t have the same effect on me as they once did. It’s as if knowing that darn goat is dead and an immense weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m reasonably sure there will be another World Series in my future. (The other two spectacles were the 1980 U.S. hockey team beating Russia and the 1995 Green Bay Packers Super Bowl victory.)

Although I’ve never seen anyone play ball quite like Javy Baez does, Anthony Rizzo is my favorite current Cub. He reminds me of my first favorite Cub, Ernie Banks. They both had/have the same aura and exuberance for the game, day-in-and-day-out. Not always the most talented players on the field, but they always gave 110 percent effort. They always show respect for the game and us Cub fans. I never got that sense watching the other guys who played first base since, notably (or infamously) such as Billy Buckner, Leon Durham, Mark Grace or Derek Lee. Maybe it’s just the confidence and/or the shear love of everything that is the Chicago Cubs that you didn’t feel in those other first-sackers.

To say I was a rabid Ernie Banks fan would be a huge understatement. I named my first dog Ernie Banks. While some might not believe it to be an honor to have a dog named after them, I assure you, as an 11-year-old boy, it was the highest tribute I could give to my favorite ballplayer.

Ernie Banks, the player not the dog, was past his prime by the time I was old enough to appreciate his talents and accomplishments. Looking back, I can’t tell you why he became my favorite player. Both of the other rabid Cubs fans I hung with disliked Ernie because Ron Santo was their favorite player — which was a sentiment quite common at the time. In our 12-year-old world, just like you couldn’t be a Sox and a Cubs fan, you couldn’t like both Ron and Ernie. That’s just the way it was.

Everyone knows Ernie hit 512 homers. But consider some of Ernie’s other accomplishments that even the most ardent Cubs fan might not know:

• He preferred football and basketball as a kid. His dad bribed him with nickels to play baseball.

• He served in the Army during the Korean War, and while stationed in El Paso Texas, played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters.

• He was the first black player for the Cubs; and to own a Ford dealership.

• Everyone knows he started at shortstop and later moved to first base, but anyone recall he played left field for 23 games? He hated it.

• He was the first National League Most Valuable Player two years in a row, 1958 and 1959.

• In May 1962, he was beaned by a pitch, sustaining a concussion. He spent two nights in a hospital, and then, hit three home runs and a double upon his return.

• Ernie’s No. 14 was the first Cubs’ number to be retired. It can be seen atop the left field foul pole at Wrigley. Field

• The highest salary Ernie ever made was $65,000, about $467,000 today.

• A lifelong Republican, he ran unsuccessfully for Chicago alderman in 1963.

• Sadly, he holds the distinction of playing the most games without ever playing in a playoff game — 2,528.

Obviously, there was quite a bit more to the man than what most people remember as an old ballplayer running around Chicago with a toothy grin wanting to “play two today.”

Someday, I envision Rizzo’s No. 44 retired by the Cubs, hopefully, atop the right field foul pole, and my grandkids will admire him like I did Ernie.